Who knew a bill authorizing the budget for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could be so partisan and contentious? But it took five years, 23 extensions, and a brief shutdown for a final deal to reach the White House, which President Obama signed on Tuesday.
Center stage in the congressional standoff was freshman Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack, who chaired a working group on regional airports that became one of the bargaining chips in the protracted battle.
Mainly, though, the FAA bill got bogged down in labor politics that Cravaack is sure to hear more about as he faces reelection in the union strongholds of Duluth and the Iron Range in his northern Minnesota district.
Cravaack is a former union airline pilot who has been courting labor support since 2010 when he won in a major upset victory over DFL stalwart Jim Oberstar. But now Democrats and some of their labor allies have leveled a two-prong attack on Cravaack, whom the GOP named as a conferee for the final FAA negotiations between the House and Senate.
Both charges stem from Cravaack’s backing for a House-passed bill last year that was opposed by labor and regional airport managers. One provision phased out a subsidy program provided through the Essential Air Service (EAS) for small airports such as those in Hibbing, Brainerd and International Falls, all in his district. Another provision changed collective bargaining rules so that workers who abstained from unionization votes counted as “no” votes.
Republicans eventually relented on the union provisions, but some labor activists still aren’t thrilled with a compromise reached with Senate Democrats. It increases the number of workers who must declare interest in a union election from 35 percent to 50 percent, making it harder to trigger a vote.
To Cravaack, it’s all water over the dam, since the final FAA deal struck a compromise on the labor rules and ensures that all the regional airports in his district retain their access to the EAS program.
Cravaack says that was his intent all along. He portrayed the House bill as merely the opening position in a year-long negotiation, and insists the airports in his district were never in any danger of losing their subsidies.  
“I was so demonized about this, ‘Cravaack’s gonna shut down the airports in Minnesota,’” he said in an interview. “None of those airports were on the chopping block.”
Many of the GOP efforts were directed at curbing subsidies which went as high as $3,700 per passenger in Ely, Nevada, home turf of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
The House bill repealing the EAS program altogether, Cravaack said, “showed we were serious.”
Democrats don’t buy it. "Congressman Chip Cravaack co-sponsored and supported an out of touch policy that would have left rural communities stranded and hurt chances for job creation and economic growth,” said Haley Morris, Midwest regional spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which hopes to target Cravaack in the fall elections.
But Cravaack notes that he chaired a congressional working group that sought a compromise on the EAS program, which he says helped move the legislation along to final passage.  
“None of our airports were ever in jeopardy,” he said, “absolutely none.”
As for the new labor rules, Cravaack has made clear he supports prevailing-wage legislation and counts himself as one of the few Republicans in Congress who has ever walked a picket line (the 1998 Northwest Airlines strike).
“If you don’t have 50 percent of the people behind you, you’re not going to have a very good strike,” he said.
Whether he can convince influential labor leaders in northern Minnesota will be seen in November.

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